The Gulf: Future of the City, Edition 2007?

This summer Volume 12, Al Manakh landed on the doormats of subscribers. On Monday September 10 Ole Bouman (Archis), Rem Koolhaas (OMA/AMO) and Mark Wigley (C-Lab) presented this guide to the Gulf region to a critical audience in the NAi lecture theatre.

The special edition of Volume was compiled on the occasion of the International Design Forum Dubai held last May. Al Manakh is divided into three sections. The first two focus on recent developments in the Gulf region. Entitled Dubai Guide and edited by Moutamarat, a knowledge centre in the region, the first section features a number of interviews and essays about Dubai. The bulk of the 500-page publication consists of a Gulf Survey, an extensive overview of recent history, architecture and urban planning in the Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, and Ras al-Khaimah, carried out by AMO and presented according to the trusty AMO recipe: lots of infographics, an avalanche of images, short and snappy profiles and impressions, interviews etc. It’s all enjoyably easy reading and offers a fairly comprehensive overview – at least as far as an outsider can judge.

Just why the editors of Volume decided to add a third section entitled Global Agenda isn’t clear. This agenda is completely different in tone to the previous two sections. It’s activist and, in places, messianic and propagandist rather that journalistic. And it’s actually about a completely different subject: ‘world problems and how architects can help solve them’ in the Global Agenda as opposed to a scarcely concealed enthusiasm for the spontaneous madness of the building boom in the Gulf states funded by oil revenue in the Dubai Guide. During the presentation Ole Bouman advocated an architecture of engaged activism, but he couldn’t distract the audience’s attention from the star of the evening: Rem Koolhaas. Rightly or wrongly, intentionally or unintentionally, he dominates the stage. Questions are put to him, and he answers them in his customary evasive and defensive manner. And it’s his comments that are discussed afterwards.

‘If you want to be apocalyptic, you could find evidence in Dubai of the end of architecture as we know it; more optimistically, you could see the emerging substance in the Gulf – built or proposed – of a new architecture and a new city,’ argues Koolhaas in Al Manakh. Just how many ‘ends of the city as we know it’ and new ‘futures of architecture and the city’ has Koolhaas conjured up for us over the years? Manhattan (retrospective), Atlanta, Singapore, Lagos, the Pearl River Delta, and now the 2007 instalment of ‘the future of architecture and the city’: Dubai.

Koolhaas clearly possesses a well-developed ‘journalistic’ nose for places where modernization is accelerating at full speed and he’s often the first to describe and interpret developments for a professional public. His analyses are sharp, lucid and always well written. But Koolhaas is also a scriptwriter and he can never resist concocting plots, future scenarios for which the preceding analysis is presented as proof. In the end, he’s also an architect. Whenever it’s appropriate, his analyses and plots are used or misused to legitimise a project, via paranoid-critical detours if necessary. Nothing wrong with that. It’s an entirely legitimate and general strategy for any architect, star or not. But Koolhaas’s consistent unwillingness to publicly link his analyses to OMA projects is gradually becoming irritating (OMA currently has five projects in the Gulf states). ‘I’m not going to talk about our projects this evening. I’m not going to make any predictions or make any value judgements’ – that’s been the opening statement of Koolhaas presentations for a long time. Things usually turn out otherwise of course. An OMA project always seems to pop up at some point, Koolhaas just can’t resist making predictions, and the fact that value judgements are never explicitly expressed only means they’re often couched implicitly. And so it was this evening.

Koolhaas often finds his ‘futures of architecture’ in cities and countries that are a bit fishy to put it mildly. Nothing wrong with that either. Koolhaas rightly points out that criticism from the ‘old’ centres of modernisation (America, Europe) of the ‘new’ (China, Africa, Gulf region), whereby the mistakes once made by the veterans are now thrown at the feet of the beginners is all too easy. Besides, such criticism hinders a good understanding of modernisation in the year 2007. In such cases empathic criticism is possible and purposeful. But all too often Koolhaas feels called upon to cloud the fishy odour with a spray of rhetoric deodorant, and he feels compelled to offer what is often ludicrous proof to the contrary. For example, Koolhaas parries the admittedly exaggerated description by Mike Davies, who accuses Dubai (‘Disney meets Speer’) of modern slavery in the publication Evil Paradises, with cheerful pictures of clean ‘kampongs’ for migrant workers. Such a ‘defence’ prompts a comparison with a Gulf version of a Potemkin settlement. Why not simply accept reality and admit that the conditions of migrant workers are far from perfect and that discrimination and exploitation occur (as indicated in reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch). Moreover, a more balanced assessment of the recent boom in sustainable initiatives (‘seriously intelligent projects’) in the Gulf states would be welcome. After all, let’s be honest, it’s practically perverse to use oil revenue to build sustainable cities that – even if they were totally ‘free of oil and CO2’ – are intended for ‘nomadic’ leisure consumers who have to be transported to and from the region in a constant procession of heavily polluting airplanes.

During the presentation it was surprising just how often it had to be stressed that the Gulf research was objective and devoid of any value judgement. This is true of the AMO section of Al Manakh, it must be said. But someone like Koolhaas, who always speaks about a subject in nothing but superlatives and hyperbole (incredibly wonderful, deeply exiting, seriously amazing, superb modernism, outrageously intelligent), shouldn’t be surprised if the audience gets the idea he thinks it’s wonderful. What’s more, someone who wants to remain so conspicuously uncritical shouldn’t be any less surprised if that only prompts sharply critical questions from the audience.

Koolhaas remarked that the madness of Lagos and the Pearl River Delta was gradually becoming normal (relief or disappointment?) and he predicted a similar process of normalisation in Dubai. In typical OMA-AMO diagrams – on the remaining area of desert within the border of the tiny state of Dubai there was still space for X Manhattans, Y Mumbais, and/or Z Londons – it was ‘demonstrated’ that there was ‘therefore’ space for a ‘normal’ mega city. Apart from the appropriate question from the audience about whether this proposal was an implicit criticism of the current Dubai (unclear answer), the key question also went unanswered. For whom is this mega city of X million inhabitants actually intended? For even more leisure consumers? A Florida for the Middle East, full of health and care resorts? For consumers of extra courses offered by ‘top teachers’ from ‘top universalities’ that are queuing up to open branches in the Gulf? Watercolour painting and modelling taught ‘top artists’ that are flown into the new Culture District in Abu Dhabi (a hyper-Bilbao with at least four top institutes designed by star architects Gehry, Hadid, Nouvel, Ando)? Excursions to the New Neverland of post-human weirdo Michael Jackson who, it is said, plans to relocate to Bahrain? No doubt it’s all going to happen, but is it really all that exciting? Who’s actually waiting for this? More importantly, is this really the future of architecture and the city?

No. As so often, the book was better than the film (or the presentation in this case). Have we seen the future of the city? Probably not. Even Koolhaas himself seems less convinced with each new future. His most important prediction: the end of the iconographic architecture of starchitects. The production rate of icons in the Gulf states is so high that they no longer make any impact. And more importantly, the Virtually Unknowns build icons just as easily (cheaper, faster, more client-oriented) as starchitects, so who needs them?

Even this prediction will probably not materialise in the region. After all, the permanent production of icons is necessary to maintain the interest of consumers (compare the permanent production of new fata morganas in Las Vegas, that other desert city). But because the icons in the Gulf states will always be more expensive, bigger and therefore more spectacular, those of us in the rest of the world can from now on forget about these follies and pass to the order of the day: patiently working on the city as it is. The next future of the city: the Ordinary City?